It’s best when you are busy, then you don’t think about it: the thing that lives in your body and tells you to get in your car and drive drive drive. Forget the car seats in the back, forget the husband who loves you, or don’t forget him. Definitely don’t fuck him. Think of someone else. Anyone else. The old boyfriend who is living back in your hometown. Meet him at a bar one night while your mom watches the babies and your husband is back home and flirt with him, hold his hand, kiss him drunk by your driver’s side door and look up at the black dark night sky and hear him say he would take you there in the field. Hear him say he wants to make you feel good. But don’t do it. Drive home pissed you don’t have the guts. Take the pills they tell you to, feel nothing, keep driving the kids to school, keep answering emails, laundry, groceries. Pour the juice in the unspillable cup and remember how you used to get wild. Go bar-hopping with a friend. Talk with a bartender after midnight and try desperately to fuck him. Send an embarrassing Facebook message to the bar’s entire account when you are too drunk to see the road. Think about the body you once had, the way you carried it. Wonder if you still got it. If you will ever again feel the pleasure of someone leaning in to touch you, wanting to know you.
Change poopy diaper number three and think about how I say ‘poopy’ now. Think about how I saw the bartender comment on some young girl’s post. Not mine. Because I don’t post. Wipe away another smear of shit, try to remember his face when he was on top of me. What did it look like when he came? Did we kiss afterward? Why can’t I remember?
Change out the diaper pail liner and imagine his life. He has no full-time job but this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve stalked the comments of his posts, wondering if he is sleeping with any of the young girls who talk about his perfect face, his constant smile. He is beautiful. When the kids go play, think about sending him another text. Hear the desperation before I even type a word, close out of the messaging app. I am old and lost in a land of matching PJs.
Christmas lights are still up in these suburbs, the house across the street with its white matching light-up reindeer. And when I saw him it was the week before Christmas Day. I met him at a coffee shop and went back to his house. I told him upfront I was married and had kids. He said he didn’t care. Later I learned it’s because he was still drunk from the night before. After sex, he felt bad, felt it was wrong. Told me he had a crush on me and there was nothing he could do about it. Remember thinking how young he was, how naive. Twenty-seven feels like decades ago.
Every night on the drive home with the boys, I aim toward the setting sun. Lately it’s been days and days with no clouds. As I flow with traffic down Interstate 459, I watch and count the planes. The white trails they leave behind. How they change shape, then disappear. The sky goes from blue to yellow to creamsicle and all those strangers sit together thousands of feet above me. I want to be with them seeing all the tiny cars down below, imagining tiny lives. But I hate flying.
Every time I hold you long enough to feel the small bones of your back, to feel the grooves of your spine, I cry. The love I feel, the anger you can bring inside of me, the worry, the panic. On this warm December day, you circle around me like a fly, eating your popsicle. I want you to go away and never leave. Some dogs are barking behind our house. We’re in the suburbs and I don’t know how I got here. The trees have small pinecones that haven’t fallen yet, and I see you in their small shape, their prickly parts. When will they let go of the branch, fall off, hit the dead grass? Sometimes in a breeze I think I might see one fall, but they stick to something I cannot understand from down here. You come up to me sticky and say, Mama, wash my hands.
Hide in the bathroom, hide behind wine, hide anywhere but in the same room as family. Cry on the toilet while I squeeze out the last bit of piss before one of my kids come knocking to see where I am at and why it is taking me so long. I’ve messed up and started something with someone new. For me it’s the end of everything; for him, it’s a good time. I know this, yet still, I agree to tell lies, to romp the streets of my city like a whore. Like I am twenty-five when I know everything about me is thirty-five. He texts me to tell me what bar he’s at downtown but it’s not like I can meet him there. Sometimes it’s fun to message, but alone in the dark, it’s sad.
On my drive into the office–past the office to take the kids to school–the sky is a mix of pinks and purples with puffy clouds hanging low from the hurricane that blew in the day before. And I’m driving and thinking of the bartender. The desolation is like the clouds. My oldest son is talking to his Peppa Pig, telling her we are on the way to school, not the park, while I remember lips touching, sour beers in an apartment that had a mannequin dressed up in the window, waving to the street. His clothes thrown in every corner, his bed covered in a white blanket. How I lay on it naked for hours while we listened to music. But now I’m driving the same stretch of highway, taking the same kids to school, passing the same lump of roadkill, the same busted tire.
He wants to know if I am lost in it too. And I think, lost in what, exactly? Am I lost looking up at the planes crossing around each other, the white trails turning colors in the sunset? Am I lost in it, he asks. Maybe, I say.
I had a home with five bedrooms. I had a husband and two kids. And now I’ll have a townhome, two bedrooms. The kids half the time. I haven’t even seen the place, signed a lease without thinking too much or too long, without asking to walk inside what will soon be mine. All I can focus on is the orange sunsets. Planes flying over my head. It’s been two days since I walked into our master bedroom and sat down beside my husband. He was propped up with pillows watching something on TV. I said Pause it, I need to talk to you. I had a notebook full of notes from the lawyer I had called that morning. I told him I wanted a divorce, three days before New Year’s. He didn’t cry to tell me no or ask me to stay. I think about how the wind blew warm and hard that New Year’s Eve, when the bartender I was sneaking out to see was so wasted he hadn’t slept in two days. How we sat on his dirty brick porch and talked about music and his love of old 70s gangster films, his dreams to one day be a full time artist and not pouring beers for people for 200 dollars a night in tips. How I lied to be there with him, how I kept thinking any minute I would get caught.
I’m moving so quickly I almost can’t follow myself. I’m untying myself from someone and part of that hurts, part of it is scary, and part of me wants to escape into this other world where the young guy lies in his bed and watches movies and listens to music and wears cute black track pants on his long lean legs. His roommates always seem to be home, friends endlessly coming and going. No one has direction. But that used to be me, and every sober day was spent wondering what I was doing with my life.
We kissed and I liked it. We had sex and I liked it. But now I have to be home and pretend to like that. I look around this house and try to calculate all the things that are mine, all the things I will take with me. I don’t clean the floors anymore. Why vacuum or worry about dog hair, why obsess over a clean kitchen. The white porcelain farmhouse sink I wanted so much, traded for a stainless-steel throwback. I asked for the guy’s t-shirt. Now it is by my bed where I breathe him in.
I’m sitting in the driveway, watching my child watch videos of trucks splash into different pools of color on my phone and talk to himself. My soon-to-be-ex is asleep in the downstairs bed. And cars keep driving past. I watch my shadow off their headlights as they glide over the garage doors like I’m flying off into the sky. Knees bent, arms around my legs, smoking an American Spirit when I quit years ago. I remember being eighteen and thinking I couldn’t wait to start my life.
None of these men are my type but I meet them all. I can’t be alone in this townhome, can’t be still when the kids aren’t here to keep me busy getting fruit snacks, sippy cups of juice, and milk. I let them come over if they want, meet them out if they prefer. I feel something sometimes but not all the time. Mostly they are hot, and I let that tell me something about myself.
One guy wants anal, another wants a quick hookup and says, I can’t stay after, I’m busy. And I say, What made you think I’d want you to stay? And I mean it. I am nobody and I will let anybody do whatever they want to me. With my hair, with my heart, with my body. They can slap me hard and leave a mark on my softly aging face, they can jam themselves deep into my throat without me crying, but when I spit there might be blood. They can call me in the day to meet during lunch and I will forgo eating to let them have me from behind. They can wrap themselves around me and whisper how perfect I am, how soft I feel, my skin so smooth. They can film it if they want. They can do it on the couch, smash my face into the cushions. Slap my ass and tell me I am so wet and warm. They can pinch my nipples until I scream out for them to let go. They can wake me up in the night but I will refuse to leave my warm bed. Sleep means even more to me than the pain.
One of them is married, a swinger. And I tell myself this is okay because his wife is into it. She likes hear the stories after his hook-ups, likes to know how many times he got the woman off. Sometimes the men linger beforehand, wanting to talk about themselves. Let me play you this song, have you heard of this band? Let’s get to the point. Pull off the pants and shirt. Stop talking. And some do. They inch closer to me on the couch, which is where it always starts. They all say the same thing. Each man, each night. I like that record collection. Cool camera. You have a lot of books. Your eyes are so pretty. And I respond the same way, smiling, laughing. Waiting for them to move closer from the farthest end of the couch. Inch by inch until their arms bump my knees, my feet tucked up under me. They all kiss different. The ones who go straight to my room don’t last as long. They pull their clothes off right when they close the bedroom door. Belt buckles hitting the hardwood. And I pull my pants and shirt off, lie on the bed ready. How big will they be? Will I come? Sometimes I rub myself until it is worth it. Will they get soft halfway through or never get hard at all, blaming the beers? Or will they go down on me and say I am beautiful, kiss my thighs, hands, neck, eyelids. Most guys, no matter the age, don’t know what they’re doing. After they leave, I have the same routine: grab the leash, take out the dog, smoke a cigarette. Wiggle my thumb over my ring finger, searching for what I no longer wear. Think about the moves our bodies made together, wanting nothing but to go to bed alone.
The chocolate crust from the top of your son’s Dairy Queen cone hasn’t melted. He dropped it on the outside brick steps of your new townhome. It’s been weeks. With rain and sun and wind. Now a greasy circle sits around it. You step past it daily. Is it your mess to clean? Is any of this? You buy them sugar now because you don’t get to see them every day. It’s your I love you, your don’t hate me. It’s been two months, but nothing feels normal. You didn’t get to have them your first night in this new place when the heat wasn’t turned on yet, but you couldn’t stay at the house that was no longer yours. Bundled on the couch, you had three blankets, socks, sweatpants, and a jacket, and still, you froze. With the dog curled at your feet, you cried hard.
Here there’s a new tub, an old tub with knobs like in your grandmother’s pastel pink bathroom. The memories come back when you turn the two knobs for hot and cold water, the center knob for the shower-head. Your boys didn’t know her, but they know her picture because when they ask you say that was Mama’s Mimi, Mama’s grandmother. Would she be proud of you still? The stairs here squeak with each step and the incline is steep. Your second night you slipped and bruised your butt and legs. Now when your youngest is at the top, he says, I got it Mama, I do it. But you worry about slips, broken necks, it all being your fault. You chose a home that isn’t safe. And you can say you did that. When the kids are here upstairs talking to each other as they try to fall asleep, you cry. You cry because one has a bump on his forehead that wasn’t there when you dropped him off two days before. You missed that moment.
You’ve stopped cooking. Your kitchen is too small, too dark, and the boys only eat Goldfish anyway. But they get their sugar, the Easter-flavored jellybeans, the Berry Skittles before bed. You know you shouldn’t, it’s after they’ve brushed teeth.
What is that chocolate made of if it doesn’t melt? What did you offer your children? Does the same stain rest in their bellies? Do they carry it with them after all these weeks?
Ashton Russell‘s work has appeared in Sundog Lit, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, storySouth, and the Southeast Review among others. She is a current MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Birmingham, Alabama.
image: “Overgrown Lovers” by Amanda Rabaduex, a poet and writer based out of Knoxville, TN. When she has writer’s block, she plays with watercolors and a Canon EOS 90D. Find her on Twitter @ARabaduex or on her website amandarabaduex.com.